Ira Levin’s 1978 modern classic, “Deathtrap”, is one of those rare mysteries that actually works on stage. It’s a perfectly crafted thriller with precisely timed surprises, reversals and twists. All these years later, there have been few, if any, stage mysteries that have had successful Broadway runs like “Deathtrap” which ran for four years. There’s a reason for that. Mysteries are not easy to write and they also aren’t a breeze to stage, either.
The much-produced “Deathtrap” is currently onstage at the beautiful new Legacy Theatre, now in its second season in Branford. This jewel box theatre is an ideal setting for “Deathtrap” whose locale is the cozy Westport, Connecticut home of Sidney Bruhl (Philip Callen), a once-famous playwright who hasn’t produced a hit in years. Into his hands drops “Deathtrap”, a mystery written by Sidney’s student, Clifford Anderson (Bryce Smith). Simply put, the play has Sidney seething with jealousy. He invites Clifford over to discuss his work, a move that has Sidney’s wife, Myrna (Marian Sage), fearful that her husband has murder on his mind. To reveal more is to spoil the delicious surprises Mr. Levin has concocted for the evening.
Any good production of “Deathtrap” must employ both pacing and timing. Sadly at Legacy, under Mark Zeisler’s sluggish direction, this becomes a thriller without many thrills. It starts slowly and comes alive only in fits and starts. Callen has the makings of an excellent Sidney, he resembles the late (and notorious) Jeffrey Epstein which actually works in this case. But while strong on playing sinister, his Sidney lacks the character’s malicious wit and biting humor. Sage, one of the bright spots in Legacy’s “Oedipus Rex” last season, doesn’t really capture Myrna’s nervous energy and Smith’s Clifford is merely superficial and unsurprising. The juicy role of Helga ten Dorp (Mary Ann Frank), the celebrity psychic next door, should jump-start the proceedings as soon as she enters. Unfortunately, Frank also slows down the action with muffled dialogue and dropped lines diminishing the character in the process.
The best aspect of Legacy’s “Deathtrap” is Jamie Burnett’s gorgeous set design, a reconverted stable perfectly realized with exposed beams, high-end furniture and fieldstone fireplace. Burnett, who has been a talented New Haven area artist for years, also designed the lighting which is terrific especially during the play’s stormy climax. Adam Jackson’s sound design is also essential here. It should be pointed out that I did attend the first public performance of the play and there were few if any glaring mishaps by the cast. Still the restrained direction and reticent, tension-free performances don’t do this wonderfully tricky play any favors.
“Deathtrap” continues at the Legacy Theatre, 128 Thimble Island Road in Branford, Connecticut through June 18 and masks are optional. For further information, call the box office at: 203.208.5504 or visit: www.legacytheatrect.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.